Justice Perverted for the Irvine 11

So what is free speech, really? Is it the right to burn the American flag? The right to sponsor a campaign to “Draw the Prophet Muhammad,” which offends a sizeable faction of the American population? The right to say what you want, when you want? The right to wear a black armband on your arm in protest of war? The right to use speech that others may deem hateful? The right to protest? The right to insult? The right to praise?

What is free speech, if it isn’t one of the most fundamental rights guaranteed to Americans by the constitution of the United States?

For the Irvine 11, the freedom of speech amounted to precious little, as 10 students at the University of California Irvine campus were found guilty today of two misdemeanors to conspire and disrupt a February 2010 speech by the Israeli ambassador to the United States at the UC Irvine campus. The trial focused on varying views on freedom of speech and censorship, and has drawn the attention of American Muslims across the country.

In a Los Angeles Times article, Lina Akari, whose son Khahid Bahgat Akari was found guilty, said she had trusted the United States court system and trusted the freedom of speech. “I taught him that you can express your mind. I don’t understand what happened. I said here you can have freedom of speech. And look what happened.”

The case of the Irvine 11 is frustrating to many American Muslims who feel just what Lina Akari said – that in a country where you should be able to express your mind, students were punished for doing just that. In a February 17, 2010 speech that President Barack Obama gave to a New Hampshire crowd regarding abortion, protestors interrupted him with shouting.  The president said, “Let me just say this though. Some people got organized to do that. That’s part of the American tradition we are proud of. And that’s hard too, standing in the midst of people who agree with you and letting your voice be heard.”

So the president can be heckled, but students can’t disrupt a speech by a person they disagree with. Even if academic institutions are run by a slightly different set of rules, you could really argue that the Irvine 11 had been punished enough. The Muslim Student Union at UC Irvine was suspended, and the students have been punished by the university too.

But today, after various UC professors testified on behalf of the Irvine 11, after the defense brought up the example of Sanah Yassin, who protested a speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud-Olmert in 2009 at the University of Chicago (emails showed that the Irvine 11 modeled the demonstration after this incident) by shouting statements and interrupting Olmert’s speech (no protestor was arrested then), the Irvine 11 was still found guilty.

It’s. Just. Not. Right.

As one of my friends stated in his Facebook status update, “Today, America proved once again to be a hypocrite, as it punished American students to do what it’s [sic] forefathers did for it to … have an existence.” He went on to post a very appropriate quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Ordinarily, a person leaving a courtroom with a conviction behind him would wear a somber face. But I left with a smile. I knew that I was a convicted criminal, but I was proud of my crime.”

Smile strongly and proudly, Irvine 11.

Click here to learn more about the Irvine 11, and click here to learn more about the timeline of events.

About Dilshad Ali
  • Mark Linder

    I don’t know from the facts of the case and the applicable California law whether misdemeanor convictions are warranted in this case. Such convictions are clearly not in conflict with the First Amendment of the Constitution, however, and to present these convictions as a violation of fundamental United States values is ludicrous and repugnant.

    When a legal scholar as liberal as Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, and as familiar with the case as he is, being the dean of the UCI Law School, makes as unequivocal a statement on this point as he did (see his article here: http://lat.ms/cnV0A0), your presentation of the situation in this way shows that you do not understand the topic you sought to address and that your interpretation is driven by something other than concern for Constitutional rights.

  • Mark Linder

    The dean of the law school at UCI, Erwin Chemerinsky, summarized it this way:

    “The law is well established that the government can act to prevent a
    heckler’s veto — to prevent the reaction of the audience from silencing
    the speaker. There is simply no 1st Amendment right to go into an
    auditorium and prevent a speaker from being heard, no matter who the
    speaker is or how strongly one disagrees with his or her message.”

  • Ted

    Legal analysis of this case by UCLA Professor Eugene Volokh.


  • Dali

    Mr. Linder,

    Certainly when the Dean of the UC law school states his thoughts that the government can prevent a heckler’s veto – that is strong support that the university was in the right to stop the Irvine 11. But there is a lot of testimony from other UC professors and Freedom of Speech experts who say otherwise.

    Take the testimony of Rei Terada (who teaches comparative lit at UCI, which I know doesn’t sound as authoritative as the credentials of the Dean of the UC law school, but news reports also call her an expert on history and free speech guidlines), who said that “during the span of her 20-year career, she has never seen someone attempt to impose such rules during a politically charged event, one that is expected to attract protests on a university campus.” (http://articles.dailypilot.com/2011-09-14/news/tn-dpt-0915-irvine11-20110914_1_free-speech-joint-session-uci-and-uc-riverside).

    Am I an expert on the constitution and the freedom of speech? Of course not. Did I have other things in mind besides what I felt was a perversion of the freedom of speech when I wrote the post. Sure. This is a blog post, not a news article, so it was my thoughts and feelings. But still, I hope I’m a good enough journalist to consider opposing viewpoints.  I do think MPAC’s Salam al-Maryati makes a good case that the Muslims students at that university have been harassed a lot on a variety of occasions and singled out – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/salam-al-marayati/free-11-muslim-students-r_b_461927.html)

    Anyway, I do appreciate your point. But I still feel these students were screwed.

  • Anonymous

    Apart from the legal issues, what is an effective, pro peace, pro justice, pro Palestine, pro Israel means of bringing about the reconciliation we seek for all G- d’s children?

  • geoff kl

    Every person who, without authority of law, willfully disturbs or breaks
    up any assembly or meeting that is not unlawful in its character, other
    than an assembly or meeting referred to in Section 302 of the Penal
    Code or Section 18340 of the Elections Code, is guilty of a misdemean

    that is the law

  • JJ

    I’m saddened that self-annointed censors are applauded.  These students did not temporarily interrupt a speech with a five second heckle, they ended it, as was their purpose.  To compare their punishment to the denial of “existence” under Jim Crow or the right to “express your mind” is offensive to those who endured such times  and those around the world today who are truly denied the ability to voice their views by their government.